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Justine McCarthy: What part of branding refugees as potential rapists is not racist?

Unconscious bias must be checked when words such as ‘unvetted’ drip from our mouths with scorn

Anyone expecting sympathy for being accused of racism while protesting against foreigners moving to their neighbourhood has a warped opinion of themselves. What part of branding groups of men who are fleeing other countries as potential rapists and paedophiles does not constitute racism?

Besides, aren’t there little racists lurking inside most of us?

“Your racecard has been declined, do you have another argument?” challenged a protester’s placard outside a warehouse in Santry, north Dublin, which has been earmarked to accommodate some international protection applicants. If that is a question, the answer is yes.

There is an old joke about a nightclub bouncer asking a would-be patron at the entrance to identify himself. “Give me a mirror and I will,” goes the punchline. To simply look in the mirror and declare oneself “not a racist” does not constitute case closed, especially when the evidence includes demands for prior consultation before international protection applicants are given accommodation in your midst and claims that no woman or child will be safe if the applicants are allowed in.


We all need to check our unconscious bias when we hear words such as “undocumented”, “influx” or “unvetted” dripping from our mouths with scorn. One man protesting in Santry this week claimed that, if 30 male asylum seekers moved into the industrial estate, local women would not be able to walk around the place in safety. As if they ever could. Do we need reminding that most murders of women are committed by men known to them?

The dire scenarios being depicted by the anti-migrant bandwagon have all the hallmarks of phobias, also known as irrational fears. They are being stoked by agitators who fancy themselves as Irish patriots. They puff out their macho chests on social media with quaint proclamations that they are “protecting our women and children”. No, they are not. They are using women and children as disingenuous arguments to drag Ireland back to the insular, dictatorial, patriarchal, cruel and judgmental country it used to be and where they ruled the roost; a place where children were abused in open secret and women were consigned to second-class citizenry.

In truth, many so-called nationalists who are fomenting the protests detest the Ireland they claim to love – this new Ireland of solidarity and live-and-let-live – and they are exploiting social inequality for their own agenda.

Xenophobia is a tried-and-tested tool. Most people have racist instincts to some degree. Unlike pregnancy, it is, actually, possible to be a bit racist. There are echoes of Ireland’s history of discrimination against the Traveller community in what is going on now as entire groups of people get tarred with one brush. Because some Traveller members engaged in crime, all members got tagged thus and were barred from hotels and pubs and, in effect, from the nexus of Irish life. Yet, the same does not happen when members of the settled community form a disorderly procession through the courts.

Prejudice is an emboldening human condition... and is seductive because it makes us feel superior

The Irish for Nimbyism is NTWH (No Travellers Welcome Here). Peter Casey, a businessman who contested the 2018 presidential election, benefited from this bias when he described Travellers as “basically people camping in someone else’s land [who are] ... not paying their fair share of taxes in society”. Tellingly, he came second, after Michael D Higgins, in the election.

These days, unfounded rumours are spread about asylum seekers sexually assaulting women, with the intention of ghettoising yet another group of people and, even when these rumours are established as lies, the mud still sticks.

Prejudice is an emboldening human condition, at least until it is called out. Its early manifestation is observable in the schoolyard, where certain children decide they don’t like the look of certain other children and bar them from joining the gang. Prejudice is seductive because it makes us feel superior. Tuppence ha’penny never felt better than when it was looking down on tuppence.

James Comey, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), talked about the universal susceptibility to racism in a speech he gave at Georgetown University in 2015 following incidents of police brutality against African-American citizens. While in no way excusing them, he said police officers had human instincts and, when they had dealt with incidents involving citizens from a particular socio-economic demographic, they developed prejudices. As a descendant of Irish emigrants, he recalled how American society had once viewed the Irish as “drunks, ruffians and criminals”. That’s how the “paddy-wagon” got its name.

How quickly we forget. Xenophobia comes in many guises. In this country, Brit-bashing has been a national sport for more than 100 years. Anglo-Irish history sowed the seeds and a long wallow in an inferiority complex has watered and fed it. In a similar vein, how often have you heard natives on a Dublin bus moan “they’re back”, when some raucous Spanish students appear as predictably as the swallows each summer? Like it or not, that is prejudice.

Politicians have a special duty to guard against stirring up these feelings. During the blockade of a property in Inch, Co Clare designated to accommodate asylum seekers, some national politicians seemed to give them validity by criticising the State for not “consulting” the community in advance. Holly Cairns, the Social Democrats leader, has clarified that, when she called for “engagement” with locals, she wrongly implied that they should have a veto over who gets to live among them.

A further inference that is widely drawn by protesters is that the accommodation of international protection applicants somehow deprives Irish nationals of homes and State benefits. The fallaciousness of this claim is self-evident. Hands up, how many Irish people want to live in a warehouse or on a floatel in a storm? Contrary to the protesters’ mantra, Ireland is not full. It’s just full of empty spaces and a generous scattering of Nimbys.

This week’s news that the numbers of protests against accommodating asylum seekers have declined, in contrast with international trends, shows that, if Ireland is closed to anything it is to closed minds. Now, that’s a country to love.